What Is Stress & What Is It Doing To My Body?
Stress is something we’ve become all too familiar with, as it now appears to be a permanent phenomenon of modern life. It’s very normal (& healthy) to experience stress. The human body was built to cope brilliantly with a certain amount of daily stress, after all, it’s how we build resilience as well as being indicative of healthy nervous system activity. But how much is too much? How does it impact us & how does it manifest? With chronic stress now being implicated as a common factor in a number of conditions it’s really important we discuss not only the impacts of chronic stress but what we can do to manage it. Cause let’s face it, it ain’t going away anything time soon.
What happens during the stress response?
To understand the impact stress has on the body we first must understand the basic functions of the nervous system. To oversimplify things our nervous system functions in 2 different modes:
rest-and-digest, governed by the para-sympathetic nervous system (PNS)
fight-or-flight, governed by the sympathetic nervous system (SNS)
Both modes have a very different, specific but important effect on our bodies.
Now, what happens within our body in reaction to a stressful event is actually incredibly elegant & complex. This feedback mechanism, as with all feedback mechanisms in the body, is there to protect us, to help us survive. It senses a "perceived threat" & acts accordingly, prompting us to fight, flee or freeze! Unfortunately, our body isn’t yet able to distinguish one threat from another and will always respond in the same manner, regardless of the threat being "real" or not.
The feedback mechanism I'm referring to is known as the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) Axis or stress system. The following occurs in the presence of a stressor:
Once the stressor has been detected the hypothalamus (the master gland, located within the brain) is activated & secretes corticotrophin releasing hormone (CRH). This signals to our pituitary gland to secrete adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) & then lastly to our adrenals to secrete glucocorticoids (cortisol).
It's this influx of cortisol & adrenalin that inflicts the characteristic fight-fight symptoms: racing heart, increasing sweating, temperature rise & feeling of anxiety. This is all normal & fine when you need to get out of a stressful situation but when you live in this stress space all the time, day in day out, you're body gets fairly over it. At this point your body will usually start giving you subtle cues, a.k.a symptoms, to warn you to slow down. When you ignore these signals, you know the fatigue, restless sleep, irritability, missed periods, weight fluctuation, appetite changes, carb cravings, lack of concentration, etc. etc.....the screaming beginnings. Your body will stop you eventually! Think of it like an electrical circuit breaker in your home, when there is a electrical fault or overload it shuts ALL the power down to prevent an accident occuring. Your body is much the same.
What constitutes a stressful event?
What constitutes a stressful event or perceived threat will be wildly different for all us. This comes down to our life experience & what stress memories our brain carriers. Remember our body is only trying to help us, if we were once in a really stressful or traumatic situation, our amygdala remembers this & files it away for later. Next time we are in the same situation, it recognises it & alerts us of the danger.
With that in mind there are also number of common situations which would constitute a stressful event for all of us, these are:
Mental stress i.e. feeling anxious
Emotional stress i.e. suppressing feeling, low self-esteem
Caffeine consumption (or excessive consumption)
Hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar), over-eating & under-eating
Consumption of refined foods including sugar, trans-fats, processed foods, preservatives, junk food, white flour, soft drink, etc
Basically, we live grossly overstimulating lives & give ourselves very little time for quiet, relaxation or self restoration. We need time away from the madness to process everything, time to let our body just be.
What are the consequences of chronic stress?
Our bodies are designed to withstand & cope with many stressful events over our lifetime. They are incredibly strong & resilient but certainly aren't invincible. No matter how much manifesting we do! We are designed to deal well with a stressful incidence rather than continuous stressful incidences. Many of us unfortunately don't ever get a break from the fight-or-flight response or we experience it to a much greater extent than rest-and-digest. I hate to be cliche and say "It's all about balance" but as far as the nervous system is concerned it kinda is.
Over-time chronic stress can lead to the following:
Disrupted circadian rhythm – stress interferes with the normal circadian release of cortisol through-out the day meaning difficulty getting too & staying asleep.
Reduced immune function leading to increased rate of illness & infections.
Disrupted microbiome – stress has been shown to negatively impacted numbers of beneficial bacteria including Bifidobacterium & Lactobacilli in the gut, the consequences of this are far too great for this post.
Digestive issues such as IBS, indigestion, bloating, constipation & diarrhoea.
Menstruation is greatly disrupted resulting in lack of period (& ovulation), irregular periods, heavy periods, painful periods, all of the weird periods.
Depletion of essential nutrients including magnesium, B vitamins & antioxidants.
Poor thyroid & adrenal function cause fatigue, weight changes, brain fog, hair fall, just to name a few.
For all you stress-heads out there who know stress IS and WILL continue to be a major part of your life. If it's an unavoidable (or necessary) part of your daily life you really need to support your body in order to stay well & avoid burnout. Believe me. If this is you I would love to help so get in touch.
Wanna learn more? Here's Some research, have a read!
Smith, S & Vale, W 2010, The role of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis in neuroendocrine responses to stress, Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience